London is not a city, rather a collection of little towns and villages patchworked together like a Gustav Klimt. Much the same as one of those Driver Awareness courses you get sent on in lieu of points on your license from breaking the law speeding : Nowhere else will you encounter in one space a collection of people from so many walks of life both culturally and socially. Well, nowhere except London.
Pimlico, Chelsea and Knightsbridge you associate with wealth and class. Notting Hill and Primrose Hill – the rich and famous. Greenwich; Royal history. Camden; those in need of a good bath. But what about one of my favourite London Neighbourhoods, Spitalfields and Brick Lane?
What does this East London neighbourhood have to offer? What’s the story behind Brick Lane and Spitalfields? And, what is worth exploring once you’ve seen the markets and tasted the curries on Brick Lane?
Exploring Spitalfields and Brick Lane in London – A Bit Of History
Before you set off exploring this quirky, unique east London neighbourhood and become confused by the minestrone soup of architecture and styles you’re about to encounter, let me give you a backstory that clears up a few questions.
The St Mary Spital Hospital, from where Spitalfields gets its name, was founded in 1197 in a fairly rural area of London but started to become more populated when a twice weekly market was held at Spital Square. The Great Fire Of London in 1666 forced many people to relocate outside of the original city walls and the East End became an area that attracted trades and the working classes.
In the 1600’s, Louis XIV of France started persecuting the Protestants in his country leaving many with only the option of fleeing their homeland or renouncing their faith. London was always seen as an international city and celebrated diversity, even back then, and the French Huguenots were warmly welcomed to the capital. Before they arrived, £63,000 was raised in order to house the new immigrants and Charles II set up a charity on their behalf, what a good fellow.
They brought with them the art of silk weaving and houses were built in Spitalfields to accommodate this new trade. On Fournier Street and Princelet Street off Brick Lane, you can still see some evidence of the Huguenots presence by the wooden spools which hang above the doors to commemorate the homes where the weavers lived. Large houses with large windows so that the French could work with natural light later into the evening plus, being out of the city centre they were exempt from certain taxes. Later the Irish linen workers came to find work in the area too.
With the decline of silk as a fashion and ‘tailoring’ being more the haute couture of the day, Jewish refugees saw a gap in the market and jumped into Spitalfields in the wake of the Huguenots, drawn to the textile industry. From the 1880’s to the 1970’s Spitalfields was one of the largest Jewish communities in Europe with over 40 synagogues.
Spitalfields was an undesirable area at this point in history. The fumes of the city were blown east and the air was thick and dirty. Some of the worst slums around painted the backdrop of rife prostitution, crime and cholera outbreaks. As if life wasn’t bad enough a serial killer was also on the loose – Jack the Ripper was claiming victims left right and centre.
By the 1970’s most of the Jews had moved on and an influx of Bangladeshi immigrants were bringing new colour and scents to a fresh community. Brick Lane, or Banglatown as it is affectionately known today, is where you’ll find some of the best curry houses in the country.
French, Irish, Jewish and Bangladeshi residents have created a neighbourhood of culture which slaps you in the face, especially as you walk down Brick Lane. Soak it up and enjoy the ride – you won’t come across a district as diverse as this one anywhere else on the planet.
Things To Do Around Brick Lane
- At the top of Brick Lane there still exist a few old Jewish bakeries serving traditional salted beef bagels. They’re all vying for the top spot but in my opinion were equally great! Beigel Bake claims to have been open since the 70’s and keeps this iconic Jewish delicacy alive – a real must-have foodie option when you’re in London.
- Once you’ve woofed down your bagel you can finish your heavenly street meal next door with a Crosstown Doughnut (157 Brick Lane). Honestly, I’d eat one off the floor if you dropped it, and I don’t even like doughnuts! Crosstown Doughnuts are now a logo I look for wherever I am in London.
- Most people come for the street art and graffiti here on Brick Lane. Keep your eyes peeled for some pretty famous pieces including the Burka by Stik and The Crane by ROA. There’s a good blog post here for a self guided walking tour.
- Britain’s national dish – The Curry – spills all it’s aromas onto the pavements of Brick Lane, wooing you in to try a Balti or a Bhuna. If you’re not British you really must try an Indian curry, and if you are – it doesn’t get much better than this!
- If you’re going to visit Brick Lane on any day, make it a Sunday when the place is buzzing! The street is jam packed with vintage and antique market stalls and street performers, plus, the Old Truman Brewery at 91 Brick Lane is open for a Sunday market; up and coming designers sell their new clothing ideas and one off pieces.
- Visit Dark Sugars. A chocolate shop like no other – you’ll see. And, if you don’t buy any chocolate you must at least take a cup of their Pitch Black Hot Chocolate; a magic potion of Ghanaian alchemy.
- Get off the beaten path a bit and walk in the tracks of the Huguenots along Fournier and Princelet Street, look out for the beautiful huge windows and wooden bobbins.
Things To Do In Spitalfields
- Well obviously you’ve heard of the Spitalfields market, and it mustn’t be missed. Open every day of the week you can buy clothes, jewellery, crafts, food and art from an undercover Grade II listed market hall. It’s a feast for the eyes as well as the mouth and you can easily waste half a day browsing.
- If you’re fancying a pint and some good conversation about one of Britain’s historical villains it’s quite possible to grab yourself a half and find a seat in a couple of the drinking establishments associated with the Jack The Ripper murders. At least 5, possibly 11, victims can be connected to the bloke and they lived around here and drank around here.
– The Ten Bells Pub on the corner of Fournier and Commercial Street : both Annie Chapman and Mary Jane Kelly were punters and the pub was used in the 2001 film From Hell, starring Johnny Depp as Jack The Ripper
– The Pride Of Spitalfields (3 Heneage Street) was the watering hole of 2 of the suspects; James Hardiman and George Hutchinson. A quaint little pub on a cobbled street.
- Catch a film at Electric Shoreditch (64-66 Redchurch Street). Cinema is theatre and should be enjoyed as such, therefore, if you’re going to splash some cash on the latest movie then I really can recommend doing it in style at this luxury cinema a short walk from Spitalfields market. Comfy velvet armchairs, a side table for your nacho’s and vintage lamp and blanket to make you feel like you’ve never left your living room. Seating is limited (you wouldn’t want too many people in your living room!) so you had better book – www.electriccinema.co.uk/shoreditch
So, you’ve visited Big Ben and Buckingham Palace, done Harrods and Liberty’s and caught sight of pretty much every iconic landmark London has to offer from an open top bus tour, but now you want something more, something a bit different. You want to feel some history and absorb a bit of London culture, discover some hidden gems, experience real city life and visit the places the locals go. Well, you’ve come to the right place – Spitalfields and Brick Lane is a thriving neighbourhood with so much to see and do and well worth at least a day of your London vacation. Now get out there, and enjoy!
Pin For Later…